Dear Dhamma friends and Supporters,
As the Winter Retreat of January-February-March is almost upon us and there is much anticipation of a useful COVID-19 vaccine, it seems a good time to update people about the community’s plans for the Amaravati Retreat Centre from April 2021. We recognize that each year that there are over 1000 sangha-led retreat places, plus the Days of Practice led by the Amaravati Lay Buddhist Association, the Buddhist Women’s Network and Family Events.
All year the sangha at Amaravati, like everyone else, has been unable to plan far ahead – for us this has been particularly with regards to opening to retreatants, guests or day-visitors. Now that we are coming up to the start of the Winter Retreat, on the 3rd of January, it seems a good idea to send greetings to all even if the future is just as uncertain as before. Although the community has enthusiastically and skillfully put in the work to offer online teachings, and the monastery managed to open for outdoor visits for a few weeks in the summer, we know that many people feel keenly the absence of the sangha and of being able sit in the Temple, the Bodhinyana Hall and the sala, or out by the stupa, or to make offerings and pay respects.
As many of you will have recognized, the community at Amaravati ranges in age from those in their 20s to those in their 80s, and there are around 65 sangha members and lay people resident. Even divided into bhikkhu, siladhara and lay communities the monastery is comprised of unusually large ‘households’. Nobody wants to be the resident who has been the cause of coronavirus entering the monastery and, supported by you lay people generously and continuously offering food and other requisites in a socially distanced way, we have managed to avoid it so far. Thank you so much for this – sādhu anumodanā!
What will happen in Spring 2021? At present the community is, like everyone else, assessing vaccines and what they will allow. Is it possible the Amaravati community will be able to achieve and sustain herd immunity? Will guests and visitors need to have their ‘vaccine certificates’ checked before coming into a building or staying overnight? All these questions, regrettably, have to remain unanswered at the moment.
It looks unlikely that Amaravati will be able to return to ‘normal service’ in the spring as many residents will still not have been vaccinated, but if the prevalence levels drop sufficiently it should certainly be possible to restart receiving visitors in the marquee with its two walls, as we arranged last August/September. In addition, I plan to be offering online weekend retreats on a similar basis to the ones retreatants are used to – with limited numbers and support from the Retreat Centre managers. Ajahns Sucitto and Candasiri, as well as other ajahns, have also been offering online teachings in various formats and it is hoped that they will continue to do so as well.
A New Sala at Amaravati
Alongside learning to live with the virus, the community has been hard at work designing a new sala, kitchen and work-yard. Recently there were six sessions of socially distanced and Zoomed consultations on matters ranging from kitchen design to disabled access and acoustics for the prospective buildings. At present we have just entered into dialogue with the local planning authority to review the designs we have so far. This may be a short and easy process or quite prolonged, involving some redrawing of plans. When we have settled on the design it will be submitted to the planners for final approval and we will post the drawings on the Amaravati website for you all to see.
This year the English Sangha Trust received, on behalf of the sangha, a very generous donation of £10m, it having been given in order to take the programme of rebuilding Amaravati forward. It is intended that this will be used to build the sala, kitchen and work-yard, three new accommodation buildings for the nuns’ community and other facilities. You can probably appreciate that this is a very large building programme and quite a massive and complex undertaking for us. For the duration of the sala-related works the community will need to decamp to the Retreat Centre kitchen, lounges and dormitories and use other rooms for storage. We are already using the Retreat Centre for people who are self-isolating, to adhere to the coronavirus protection system we have in place, and for longer term guests who are helping keep the monastery turning over.
So, as the EST noted in an earlier website posting on finances, although hopefully come the summer Amaravati may be able to welcome day visitors, Saturday workshop participants and overnight guests, the Retreat Centre may not be able to open for retreats until the new sala is completed – this means it is likely to be unavailable for on-site retreats and family events for around three years. Parts of it will have been refurbished by then so we can at least expect it will be in good condition when retreats start up again.
With the prospect of closing the Retreat Centre for 2-3 years we realize that there will be a sense of loss for many people. It a justifiably much-loved and treasured presence in the lives of us all. This year of 2020 has been the first time since 1985 that there have been no retreats and no Family Camp held here, which is a great sadness. We therefore recognize that this temporary closing is a significant change for the whole community, lay and monastic, including retreatants of all ages and those teachers who would have led their first face-to-face retreats, plus those who, by the time of reopening will have moved on in their lives. To help us recognize what we have received and now need to let go of for a time, I will include reflections on these changes in the live-streamed Dhamma talk planned for New Year’s Day, and you are invited to send dedications for that event.
All of these circumstances, past present and prospective, are clear manifestations of the law of change and uncertainty – aniccatā. There might be aspects of all this that we find deeply challenging, other aspects we might find inspiring or exciting, much of it will be somewhere in the middle as our moods and attitudes change. The encouragement of the Buddha’s teaching is to actively apply wise reflection and to receive this intrinsic changingness with an open heart: ‘All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me … thus we should frequently recollect.’ This reflection is suggested for us not in order to increase levels of anxiety – of course not! – rather it is to enable our hearts to turn and face, to embrace that change and for it to be a liberating presence in our lives. If it is received in this fashion it strengthens the insight into not-self and counteracts the tendency to seek security in that which is insecure, which will necessarily be disappointing. Instead, the choice to be in harmony with reality as it changes reveals itself to be a reliable spiritual resource, one that we can cultivate and which will support the process of genuine liberation.
With all good wishes for your ongoing well-being and with gratitude for your continued support.
Yours in the Dhamma,